Knowing Infinity

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If you love math as much as I do, you’re pretty much constantly starving for a juicy math movie. Pi, Good Will Hunting, A Beautiful Mind, The Imitation Game, there are only a handful. The Man Who Knew Infinity left me inspired and hungry to know more about its actual star – mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan. With actors like Jeremy Irons and Dev Patel carrying you down the story’s path, you’ll find yourself on a fascinating journey of one man’s perseverance to prove himself to 1913 English academia – 5000 miles away from his home in Madras, India. Why prove himself? Because of his self-taught, inherent, almost mystical understanding of mathematical partitions and the establishment’s demand for verification through proofs and theorems.

Partitions is part of a mathematical number theory concept of combinatorics, where a partition is a way of writing a positive integer (n) as a sum of positive integers. For example, the seven partitions of five would look like:

  • 5
  • 4+1
  • 3+2
  • 3+1+1
  • 2+2+1
  • 2+1+1+1
  • 1+1+1+1+1

I am not sufficiently qualified to paraphrase the significance of (the real) Ramanujan’s formula, but it has been used in statistical physics and in calculating quantum partition functions of atomic nuclei.

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Ramanujan’s English mentor, Professor G.H. Hardy (portrayed by Jeremy Irons), played the role of lion tamer, forcing the young genius to dress like an Englishman and mold himself into that of his peers. But Ramanujan had nothing in common with his peers…nor anybody else.

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Ramanujan didn’t need to walk the path of scientific rigor to deduce partitions – he knew them; he understood them. Said Professor Littlewood in the film of Ramanujan, “Every positive integer is like one of (his) personal friends.” But, as Hardy demanded, in order to publish and be taken seriously, he must do more than simply provide an answer. He must demonstrate each painstaking step and identify the path. And while Hardy honed Ramanujan’s untamed genius, the young mathematician suffered through mathematical proofs to try to verify and validate his formula.

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Ramanujan’s life in Madras is a fascinating part of the story, so far removed from the stilted, structured academic fortress of Cambridge’s elite ruling class. It is here, in Madras, that the most compelling character conflict exists – between Ramanujan’s mother and his young wife, Janaki. Certain that his young, beautiful wife has forgotten him, he mourns her lack of correspondence and drowns his sorrow into deeper consumption of his endless proofs. Combined with cold, rainy English weather, lack of food befitting a vegetarian diet, and constant humiliation by his English benefactors, Ramanujan’s broken heart causes his health to deteriorate.

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The very brief, culturally unlikely and deeply meaningful collaboration between Hardy and Ramanujan resulted in Ramanujan becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society of London and what became known as The Hardy-Ramanujan Asymptotic Partition Formula, the effect of which has had a transformative impact on modern mathematics. You can read about and practice the partitions formula here.

Director Matthew Brown, in this portrayal of one of mathematics’ brightest stars, shows you Ramanujan’s inspiration, alienation, desperation, but not without validation of his work. It’s a meaningful ride into a fascinating slice of history and a tiny glimpse into the mind of a true genius.

Thanks for reading, and if you know of a good math movie that I’ve missed, please comment!

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~ by relativitygirl on June 6, 2016.

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